Oaxaca remains pretty low key, no malls in sight, which is a large part of its charm. Head to the Quincenera section of the largest market Abastos for handicrafts, woven goods, decorative items. It and other markets are also great for groceries, fondas (informal eateries) or foodie gifts like mole paste, unique Oaxacan chiles and spices. Or head to chocolate street and Mayordomo shops for sweets gifts.
Chocolate Street – Buy your foodie gifts here
Francisco Javier Mina (also called Calle Mina) & 20 de Noviembre intersection three blocks south and one west of the Zocalo. Mayordomo store – 20 de Noviembre #305 at Mercado Juárez
Oaxacans love chocolate more than they value their lives, or mine come to think of it. The driver of my shared taxi guzzled his steaming bowlful while driving one-handed at a hair-raising speed along Ruta 175 towards Ocotlan. What a stupid way to die, I thought as we whizzed past forlorn white memorial markers along the highway. They were all for chocolate addicted drivers, I guess. Mexicans have been making chocolate for centuries (cacao beans are dried, toasted then ground) and Oaxaca is famed for turning it into gorgeous moles and several versions of hot beverages. The state grows some but sources most of its cocoa from Chiapas and Tabasco.
Stores on this street with tubs of dried and roasted beans will grind fresh chocolate paste or mole from all-natural ingredients you select (almonds, cinammon, vanilla, chilli) that can be used for hot chocolate, baking or cooking. Prepackaged chocolate bars (some prefer this, for making a smoother drink, than the fresh ground) and jarred mole are also sold.
The chain Mayordomo is the largest, exporting some to the USA. All the pre-made bars and discs sold here can be used for hot chocolate and cooking. Check out the A la canela bar (with cinammon) and Con Nuez (bittersweet with walnut). They also sell Mole Rojo and Mole Negro. Address – Jacobo Dalevuelta 200 casi esq Reforma, junto a jardín Conzatti, Centro, 68000 Oaxaca
Hop into a taxi or walk to for the sprawling, raucous Abastos Market for much cheaper but less well-packaged mole pastes than Mayordomo. It’s also the main point for shared taxis to the attractions at outskirts of the town. From the zocalo/central square, take Galeana or Mier y Tieran streets, both opposite the church, and head south for three blocks, turn right on Ave Trujano, heading for west two blocks or so until you cross Preferico highway. You could walk but I don’t suggest crossing the dangerous Periferico highway on foot. You’re risking life and limb with fast moving traffic and clouds of dust. Once past the highway you’re at the northeastern-most point of Abastos Market.
Its the biggest market in the city. Sprawling, chaotic and crowded (ridiculously so on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays when stalls selling produce from around the region set up shop), town too clean and you have to keep en eye out for pickpockets. Saturdays is reputedly the busiest and perhaps the most risky.
A STRONG word of warning – beware of pickpockets! Don’t even bring a good camera. Also, some vendors are impatient with photographers unless you’re purchasing something from them. Whenever I strayed from my friend, a local chef buying supplies, vendors rudely shooed me away. Its also a wonderful living showcase for diverse Oaxacan ingredients, crafts and local color.
Great place to get unique Oaxacan chiles, dried avocado leaves, and fresh hoya de sante and cepiche that you wont get anywhere elsewhere in Mexico. Vendors also sell tar-thick readymade mole sauces from the hard to make mole negro to delicious amarillo and rojo, if you want to cheat. Chef Eduardo says they keep for a year!
There’s a huge section selling sandals, clothing, pottery and crafts and TONS of things you never knew you wanted. There is a skill to negotiating this behemoth, follow a vague clockwork route. Imagine the market as an upside down triangle. Remember where you hit the northeast corner of the market after crossing Preferico? Turn left here along the road ‘til you see a masses of clothing and shoe stores under tarps. This is Quincenera section – you can enter the market between the gaps and paths between the stalls here. Once inside, head a southwesterly direction to the section selling cheap clothing and chorgeous (gorgeous and cheap) woven baskets and woven rugs and blankets.
Keep heading deeper westward until you exit this section, you’ll arrive at the central aisle of the market. Look right and you might get a glimpse of the food court to get your bearings – head the opposite way, to the south.
Continue southward toward the bottom point of the triangle. You’ll get to the section selling pottery – decorative or functional terra cotta kitchen items like metate (rolling pin and rectangular base for chilli paste) and comal (round clay griddles for cooking tamale). Turn eastward, and head to the eastern edge for the massive outdoor fruit and vegetable section, though it’s safer to just turn round to face a northeast direction towards the leather sandal (huaraches) section. After buying the footwear for everyone in the family, you can take care of the other end. Continue heading northward along the western side of the triangle and you’ll hit what I call Sombrero City.
Keep heading north you’ll get to the food court. Dive into local delights here – tortillas, empanadas and breakfast tamales.
If you’re a budget traveler the two “collectivo” taxi stands and a regional bus terminal are located here . They offer unbelievable cheap rides to charming unspoilt towns and the Cuajimoloyas highlands to the north.
For adventurers and those with iron stomach, head over to fondas (sit down food stalls) at Mercado San Benito Juarez . Head back east half a block, turn right on 20 de Noviembre and walk southward until San Benito Juarez. Both these markets are heavily visited by tourists but stay faithful to their roots.
Stalls sell local ingredients – fruits, vegetables, fish and meat, nuts, over a dozen varieties fresh and dried chilli. And my favorite – reasonably priced but quality mole pastes you can bring home to as a base for your own Oaxacan delights. Many stalls selling fruit will juice them for you. Try some delicious exotic fruits like guava, custard apples, (early in the year) small floral-scented local mangoes.
A good place to gawp at chapulines – roasted grasshopper marinaded in lime, sea salt and chilli scooped with a bowl out of large plastic bags, sometimes off the floor. For those of you brave enough to try them, about three tablespoonfuls costs 10 Pesos and is pleasantly tangy though the texture is a bit on the squishy side. And getting grasshopper legs out from between my teeth was a pain. Alternatively, snack on the more familiar – tamales, empanadas and tortilla, all freshly made here.
Stalls selling clothes are on one side of the market; leather goods are on the other. You can also sample tejate here if you’re curious about the beverage that seems to be topped with styrofoam bits. The lightly fermented non-alcoholic drink is made from a paste of maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits (a brown skinned, orange-fleshed fruit you see everywhere in Mexico) and flor de cacao (that’s the ingredient that looks like styrofoam). Served cold and tasting like weak malt, it’s a cheap protein-packed drink beloved by the locals. Come before 9am to see how the grain is kneaded, water added then the frothing from natural fermentation is allowed to take place for an hour or so before its ready to be served.
Best time to visit Benito Juárez is on Saturdays when villagers outside the city set up shops selling fresh fruit, bankets and embroidered clothing, pottery and leather sandals. Other colorful markets include the daily Mercado de Abastos and the Mercado de Artesanias with its focus on textile goods.
Head south to the neighboring Mercado 20 de Noviembre for cooked foods – try local specialty tlayudas. giant, but thin, corn tortillas brushed with lard and topped with cheese; or with a cheese-and-chilli-sauce then pan roasted to fragrant perfection. The section Pasillo de Carnes Asadasis highly recommended by locals. Head to one of the glass-fronted stalls, pick a your meat (chilli-marinaded pork cecina, paper thin salted beef skirtsteak tasajo or beef sausage salchicha oaxaqueña). The selection of accompaniments – salsa, grilled onions, guacamole, salsa – are ordered separately; along with a basket of tortillas come from a wandering vendor.